When Bad Communications Happen to Good Organizations

I love fundraising and donor cultivation communications. In any form. Direct mail, email, websites, newsletters, annual reports, phone calls, donation forms, Facebook pages, you name it.

We save most of what we receive at my office – and anyone working or interested in donor communications should do the same. Over the years we’ve built up a library of great donor fundraising and cultivation messages. We return to it periodically as a springboard for new ideas, or validation of existing ones.

My saved email folder

But there’s a small corner of our library that also reminds us how NOT to communicate with donors. Of course I won’t name names. And in fairness to those of us who develop dozens of campaigns a year, it’s inevitable that we’re going to miss the mark occasionally.

Fortunately while there are many, many ways we can botch our donor communications, we tend to do so for just a handful of reasons. Here are five of the biggest reasons I think bad fundraising communications sometimes happen to good organizations, and some simple suggestions for how you can avoid these pitfalls:

1. We take our donors for granted. During the height of the financial crisis last fall, we received a year end email solicitation from an organization with the subject line: “From the Bean Counter.” It was a frank communication from the Chief Financial Officer stating that the organization’s programs would be a “nonstarter” unless “donors like you step up with a few extra dollars.” The email was terse, the tone impatient. There were no words of thanks for the donor’s past support. The email even marginalized the act of giving itself, dismissing the donor’s philanthropy as a matter of stepping up with a few extra dollars.

I’m all for the occasional “I’m gonna give it to you straight,” donor communication. In fact, the urgent CFO letter can be a very effective – and appropriate – fundraising approach at times. But we’re never excused from good old fashioned manners. Like saying “how are you?” and “it’s nice to see you” to a friend before you ask a favor. So before you hit send on your next donor appeal, ask yourself this: “does this communication demonstrate sincere, heartfelt appreciation for my donor?” If your answer is anything less than ABSOLUTELY!, rewrite it.

2. We try to be clever, and wind up being the opposite. Another email solicitation that caught my eye recently showed a picture of a beach scene with the breezy headline, “It’s Summertime and the Giving’s Easy!” Considering it was early June and unemployment was over 9%, neither of these statements was actually true. Worse, neither was a case for support. (I could just imagine the donor puzzling why to give to this organization – because it’s summer? because it’s easy?)

What’s easy is spotting mistakes like this in hindsight. All of us sometimes turn our brains off accidentally. The trick is to realize it and turn them back on – quickly, before we talk to our donors. So after every fundraising communication you compose, complete this statement: I have given my donor the following reasons to make a contribution: ________. Ideally, you will list at least three. Then ask yourself, are they good ones?

3. We lose sight of the forest for the trees. I once did a messaging and creative audit for an organization whose mission involved women’s rights issues. After reviewing their annual report, I had just one question: “where are the women?” It turned out that the majority of this organization’s considerable successes were achieved in government offices and at international conferences. So their donor communications showed their staff doing things like talking to policy makers, giving keynote addresses and shaking the hands of world leaders. They gave excerpts of the organization’s important publications and research. They gave long explanations of the organization’s particular method for achieving its mission. They explained why their method was the most effective one. But they didn’t tell a single story or show a single picture of a woman and child.

Fortunately this kind of oversight is an easy fix, too. As a rule of thumb, the large majority of your donor communications (say 75%) should be about the ultimate vision, and the donor’s role in making that vision possible. This means devoting 75% of your donor communications to photographs of the people you serve, stories of your beneficiaries, words of thanks to the donor and engagement opportunities for the donor. Leave the details to the remaining 25%.

4. We don’t ask (AKA we bury the ask, we beat around the bush, we don’t ask clearly, we don’t ask for a specific gift or action). I receive a lot of letters from organizations, particularly in the fall, that go something like this: “The So-and-So Organization has come to the end of another year of (doing the work the organization does).” This is followed by a page of hefty bullet points recapping the organization’s accomplishments and successes from the past year. In the second to last paragraph, I’m told that the organization’s Annual Fund supports this work and that the bigger and better Annual Fund goal this year is $__ (fill in the blank). Finally, in the last paragraph, the letter says the organization is hoping for 100% Annual Fund participation. From the enclosed reply form listing a range of giving levels from $25 to $10,000, I gather that the organization wants me to select one and send the form back in with a gift.

We all know this letter, don’t we? We’ve received it a hundred times, maybe even written it ourselves once or twice. It’s such a familiar format that we don’t even notice that while the organization has given us an excellent recap of the fine work they’re doing, and even demonstrated that they would be good stewards of our continued support, they haven’t actually asked us to give. They also haven’t told us how much they want us to give. It’s an easy pitfall, but equally easy to avoid. When you finish writing your Annual Fund letter this year, just ask yourself: 1) have I made a clear and direct ask on the first page of my letter? and 2) have I asked the donor for a specific amount that reflects his/her giving to my organization? Make sure you can answer YES! to both, before you go to print.

5. We ask – but make the same ask again, and again, and again. Last and perhaps the greatest pitfall of all: we run out of ideas. We start using the same #10 envelope, the same email template, the same photographs, the same arguments, the same petition. Without even realizing it, our donor communications become formula. And then we wonder why our results start to wane.

The fact is, routine kills originality. Yet to do our jobs well – that is, to build ever stronger donor relationships through terrific fundraising communications – we must be routinely original. Unfortunately, there’s no simple checklist for creativity and originality. But the good news is, you’re not on your own either. There’s a whole wide world of organizations connecting with their donors and providing inspiration to all of us for how to connect with our own. Sure, they miss the mark occasionally and end up in that dark corner of our library. But most fundraising communications out there are excellent demonstrations of how TO talk to your donors. So whenever you find yourself in need of ideas, look to your peers for inspiration – and return the favor by creating your own inspiring donor communications.


Add a Comment